A father-son journey to the land of mice, megabytes, and little blue underlined words that take you someplace else.
Without computers, my dad once engineered a billion-dollar loan to Italy. Without E-mail, he maintained decades-long relationships with bankers, government ministers, and an entire who's who of business people in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Without learning to type, he--well, his secretaries--wrote up contracts, memos, evaluations, analyses, and letters, probably 10,000 or more over a 32-year career at J.P. Morgan. And without consulting even a single parenting Website or Internet news group, he and my mother managed to raise three sons.
So after he retired, and my brothers and I suggested that he buy a computer, he always had a perfectly reasonable response: "Why do I need this? What do I want with all this mumbo jumbo? It's so impersonal. It's so uncreative."
But over the past couple of years his tone changed. My mother died, and I think he began to envy the way my brothers, Bill and Chris, and I stay in touch via E-mail. Some of his friends got E-mail addresses, and business contacts began asking for his. The media gurgled on and on about the Internet, making it seem an exotic country that he'd never visit.
Like the rest of America, my father started investing in tech stocks (like the rest of America, he scored mixed results). Then, last winter, he asked me a question about this Michael Dell and his computers. In the spring he wanted to know about Steve Jobs. Finally, during the summer, my father, this sophisticated man, this 68-year-old Luddite, asked whether I thought he'd be better off with a PC or an iMac.
So now we had to make basic decisions: laptop or desktop, direct Internet connection or America Online, PC or Mac. To get started, Dad drove into Manhattan from his home in Princeton, N.J. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he said, sitting in front of my office Mac. "You'll have to be very patient."
Clearly, this would be a test of, well, faith. I have to admit that I'm a believer. I believe there's a good reason more and more seniors are buying computers. According to research firm intelliquest of Austin, Texas, 1.8 million have been online in the past three months--up from 900,000 at the end of 1996. I really do believe that the Net lets people connect to new ideas and to other people in a way television can't match. This technology isn't impersonal; if anything, it helps break isolation. Now, my dad's not old and he has plenty of friends, but I've thought for years that he could benefit from a computer. Instead of pecking away at a typewriter, and then repecking to fix his typos, he could use a word-processing program. Then there's speech-recognition software, which makes writing and editing easier still. Dad subscribes to a slew of newspapers--including the Financial Times, the Italian Corriere della Sera, the Princeton Packet--so it seems natural he'd eat up the Net, with its reams of information from all over. E-mail could help him stay in closer touch with family up and down the East Coast and with friends worldwide. Instead of slogging to the mall, Dad could order his Chet Baker disks from CDNow and get his winter chamois shirt from www.llbean.com. He could even do his banking online.
Sounds great in theory; getting from here to there wouldn't be easy. To put it simply, my father knows nothing about computers. When I told him I was going to write an article about getting him online, he agreed to a short tech quiz. Here are sample answers: A megabyte is a very large byte, but what in the world is a byte? A modem is a round thing that you stick into a computer. A bookmark is, obviously, something you stick in a book to mark the page you're on. He could identify Andy Grove and Bill Gates--I just threw them in to see whether he'd been reading his FORTUNE.
However, as we sat down at the Mac, mainly to figure out whether Dad would prefer AOL or a direct connection to the Net, I began to see that the primary problem facing a neophyte isn't his lack of knowledge--it's that technology companies still have no clue about how confusing their products are, and no clue about how to explain them to the uninitiated.
First we try to log on to AOL. And try. And try. "By now," says Dad, "I could have changed the world 50 times over." I think he's kidding. Anyway, it takes forever to get a reasonable connection. When we finally do, one pop-up ad after another intrudes on the screen. "Is this the Internet?" he asks. "It's so annoying." I spend a little time trying to explain the difference between the Internet and AOL and quickly give up. I show him how AOL can track your portfolio, and I show him some of the service's sports sites. "I have to use this mouse for everything?" he asks. A righty, my dad has, of course, decided to try the mouse southpaw. I tell him to switch hands. Everything about AOL seems slow to him. "You know," he says, "three hours in my life is equal to 30 hours in yours because I'm so old. My disposable time is less than yours." I pretend I have something to do in another office.
When I come back ten minutes later, my father is slumped in my office chair, looking defeated. "That's enough of that," he says. "Do you want me to look at the Internet now, or can we go to lunch?"
After lunch we try the Internet. I surf over to my personalized page at Yahoo, and we start talking about the language of the Internet--"links," "Websites," "hypertext." It turns out that these are completely meaningless terms. Links are better explained as "blue words that are underlined, and when you click on them you get something else." Websites are better explained as pages, and let's not even try to figure out where those pages actually "are." Hypertext is better not explained at all.
Once we give up on the vocabulary, surprise! Dad actually likes Yahoo and begins to find things on the Net that interest him. There's a site for J.P. Morgan alumni, and he discovers that an old colleague now has a vineyard in France. The L.A. Dodgers have their own site, with good stuff about his favorite players. He easily finds stock quotes and news about companies he tracks.
On a roll, we decide to E-mail my brothers. We use my account, and Dad types out a couple of messages with his index fingers, which move with all the alacrity of crippled flamingos. My brothers happen to be online, and we receive E-mail back right away. Dad's thrilled.
I get my brothers on the phone for a conference call. Both of them have used the Net for years. Chris, 30, works for a small company that manages musicians, including the Dave Matthews Band, whose Website helped build its national following. Bill, 34, works for Lexis. He's the kind of guy who goes to computer fairs so he can bulk up his PC with cheap memory, a veteran Nethead who once sent me a digitized birthday card featuring an ASCII text drawing of a chocolate cake with rum glaze and layers of strawberries.
The three of us congratulate Dad on his first fling in cyberspace and gently urge him to go all the way--to actually buy a computer and get online. After all, he divides his time between his houses in New Jersey and Florida, while my brothers live in Charlottesville, Va., and I live in Brooklyn. We tell him that for us, staying in touch by E-mail is as natural as can be, and more convenient than the phone.
But Bill knows a little bit too much about all this for the conversation to go totally smoothly. When Dad complains that E-mail is much less personal than a phone call, Bill responds, "Well, there are these things called smilies, Dad. You type things up and it can look like a smiley face, or a quizzical face. It's a way to convey emotion."
"Hunh?" asks Dad.
"Look at my E-mail," Bill says. "You'll see what I mean. Just turn your head 90 degrees!"
Dad does so. "That's ridiculous," he says. "That's supposed to be like seeing someone smile, or hearing him laugh over the phone?"
I quickly change the subject, asking Chris and Bill what kind of setup Dad should get for his two homes. As we debate the issue, Dad interrupts from time to time with questions that get to the point: "Is that easy?" "Is that hard?" And, finally: "Will I have trouble connecting from both Florida and New Jersey?"
"You mean configuring the dialers for the modem?" asks Bill.
"Speak to me as if I'm a baby, dammit." The conversation wraps up pretty quickly.
Three days later Dad gives me the go-ahead to buy a computer and two printers (one for each house). He sets a budget of $3,000. Why $3,000? Because he's seen a Dell Inspiron laptop advertised in the New York Times for $1,999, and for some reason he's decided that is what he'd like. He says he's eager to start and that he trusts me entirely. He adds: "My friends all say it will change my life, and I ask, 'For the good or the bad?' and they say, 'Well, we'll see.'"
Of course, I can't just let Dad make this decision on his own, so I go shopping. For three weeks I talk to experts, consult Websites, visit stores, compare prices. At the end of all that, I wind up calling the 800 number on the Dell ad Dad found. Then I phone to tell him what he will get delivered in a few days: From Microwarehouse, an online retailer, two Hewlett-Packard inkjet printers. And from Dell, a 266 MHz Inspiron laptop, with a 13.3-inch active-matrix screen, 80 megabytes of RAM to ensure that his speech-recognition software works without a hitch, a 56K internal modem, and docking ports for both Florida and New Jersey.
Yes, I tell him, I do realize that this is the very same computer he picked. And yes, he's right, it turned out that I did not have to check with my experts. We discuss this fact once or twice or a dozen times over the next few weeks. (For more on how to shop for your parents, see box.)
When the laptop arrives, Dad opens the box, unpacks it, looks at the machine, the manuals, the spare CD-ROM drive, and the many disks, and promptly repacks the box. "I put everything just where I found it, Rick," he says on the phone.
"You don't want to try to set it up yourself?" I ask.
"I think that would be crazy, don't you?"
Three days later I drive to Princeton and haul the boxed computer from the dining room to my father's home office--Chris' old bedroom, where a desk is set up under a wall of posters of athletes and celebrities of the 1970s and early 1980s: O.J. Simpson, Farrah Fawcett, the B-52s. I keep Dad out of the room: If he watches the installation, he may never want to try computing.
Soon Chris' bed is littered with registration forms and manuals for the modem, the laptop, Windows 98, the printer, a greeting-card program, AOL. I waste a lot of time reading directions--it turns out that Dell has preinstalled virtually everything. (That's nice, but if Dell's so great at customizing its PCs, why can't it customize its manuals, telling the customer exactly what's ready and what's not?)
Choosing an Internet service provider is equally time-consuming. None of the national providers I check--AT&T, Erol's, MCI, Mindspring--seem to offer local access in both Princeton and Boca Grande, Dad's Florida town. The help-desk operators, even at AT&T, are unable to say whether their Florida access numbers are local calls from Boca. I spend another half-hour trying to find the division of BellSouth that serves the town. It's a brief visit to customer-service hell--at every step I think, if I hate this, what would Dad think if he had to do it on his own?
Finally I give up and sign Dad on with America Online. It has customer-service reps who answer my calls quickly, it has an access number that is at least close to Boca Grande, and it makes signing up a breeze. Dad can learn to love AOL.
I set up icons on his laptop for the three things I think he'll use most--Microsoft Word, AOL, and NaturallySpeaking, a speech-recognition program. (Dad has decided he'd like to document memories of his boyhood in Czechoslovakia and Cuba--especially if he doesn't have to type.) I log on to AOL, go to Marketing Preferences, and turn off the pop-up ads, which makes the service much less annoying. I put my brothers' and my E-mail addresses into his address book, dump some cool Websites and AOL locations into his Favorites file, and decide we're ready. I tell Dad he can come into the room.
Now I'm really nervous. It's taken six hours to set this thing up, and I have just 90 minutes before I'm supposed to drive home, leaving Dad with the machine. After that, God knows what will happen.
He sits down. "I have to tell you, I feel like the Titanic. I'm about to hit an iceberg, but I don't see it, and I'm going to sink with this thing."
We log on to AOL. The volume is turned up high, and the modem screeches. Dad looks at me and shakes his head. "What is it doing?" he asks. A few seconds later the computer is speaking to him. "Hello," it says, "you've got mail!" He shakes his head again. He doesn't like this either.
We start poking around AOL, looking at different locations, exploring the basics of the menu, attempting--without success--to get onto the Internet, and learning about E-mail. I realize that even though Dad and I are staring at the same screen, we are seeing completely different things. I see a desktop of menus, buttons, and icons. He sees a confusion of stuff.
We spend an hour on the basics. Click on the X in the upper-right-hand corner of a box to get rid of it. Drag your finger slowly along the touchpad to move the arrow. Click here; double-click there. The more we do this, the more I realize that despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people now use computers, we're wrong and Dad's right--this makes no sense at all. Computing cannot have been designed with humans in mind.
We spend only a few minutes on Microsoft Word, and don't even get to NaturallySpeaking. As I leave, it seems perfectly obvious that my father and his laptop are as mismatched as Oscar and Felix. I have no idea why we decided to buy this computer. I'm so depressed that on the way home I hit the drive-through for my first fast-food burger in months.
As they say in the ads, a new era in communication has dawned. Over the next few weeks communication with Dad is a combination of phone calls, voice mail, and E-mail, and a strange mix it is:
Voice mail: "Pammy Parsons [a neighbor] says she'll help me figure out E-mail when she gets back to Princeton. She says she used a tutor who helped her figure out her computer in just three lessons. I think I'll call this tutor."
E-mail: "Rick, thanks for your message, very thoughtful and I hope you will keep it up because this computer, which I have named Aboudi [his version of "Gotcha!"], is still a stranger to me. It seems we live in very different worlds. Anyway I hope you and Mari [my wife] are enjoying a good weekend (and why, by the way, does Aboudi keep asking if I still want to stay online if I stop for even less than a minute?). Going slowly nuts, I now sign off with much love to you both."
Phone call: "Rick, I can't make the volume on this thing go down. I hit something and I don't know how to fix it."
E-mail: "Boy, Rick, I am flunking this computer thing! Why did the computer cancel my previous message to you? This Aboudi is not very friendly and takes a lot of my time. I hope you and Mari are having a much better time than I am right now. A big hug and keep your helpful messages coming whenever you have time to think of me sitting here and sweating blood; intellectual, that is."
Voice mail: "I had a very bad day with this thing, Rick. Could you call me when you get the chance? I went on AOL, and one thing after another kept opening up. By the way, the Dell book is hopeless. It says, 'If you can't hear well, turn to page 21 or 22,' but then there's nothing there."
Phone call: "I am not going to spend my life in front of my PC, like some of you people. That's not the way I envision the rest of my life: Wake up, turn on the PC, forget to shave, and spend the day there till I forget to sleep."
Phone call: "No, I didn't get your E-mail. Because I haven't checked in a week. You want to meet for dinner tonight? That was why you E-mailed me? Oh, Rick."
E-mail: "Thank you for your long message concerning my troubles with Aboudi. He actually is quite okay as he guided me through all the mistakes I made until I finally got your useful memo printed. Yes, I finally got something printed! I thank you for your TLC of your senile dad with petrified brain."
Phone call: "You're sweet to ask, but, no, I don't want to return the PC. It's a challenge. You know what that's like. You've put me into this, and now I want to dominate this machine."
I drive down to visit. Dad and I spend time at the computer. At first, it seems just more of the same. We fix the microphone on his headset so that he can train NaturallySpeaking to recognize his voice. When we log on to America Online, we get that voice again: "Hello, you've got mail!" "Oh, damn!" says Dad. We try once more to talk about the difference between AOL and the Internet. Finally I tell him to forget it, to just click on MyYahoo in his AOL Favorites file; then he'll be on the Net. He says he'll remember all this--we'll see.
But I notice during this trip that Dad is picking up stuff that matters. He's learned Aboudi's touchpad, and moves the cursor around the screen with no trouble at all. He's learned to print out E-mail--he shows me a message Chris sent telling when he and his girlfriend will arrive in Florida for Christmas. And he has no difficulty finding his stock portfolio on AOL.
We bag the computer lesson after a while and chat in the kitchen. Dad tells about his recent physical, and how delighted the doctor is that he's using a computer: "He says a computer is the best way for old people [Dad's words] to exercise their brains." Dad's planning to contact Pammy Parsons' tutor this week. It turns out that Ms. Parsons is not the only person who's used a tutor to get started--his friend Diane did too.
In a few weeks, Dad will head to Florida for the winter. I get the feeling he may actually want to log on when he gets there--for one thing, his friends the Guthries recently asked for his E-mail address. He may have to wait to set up the laptop and the printer until I arrive for the holidays, but then again, maybe he'll do it on his own or find someone to help.
I was talking a few weeks ago to my maternal grandmother, who lives across the street from Dad in Florida. She scolded me for forcing him to buy a computer: "It's a great idea, but people shouldn't have things imposed on them." I don't think I forced him to do anything, but frankly, if I did, I don't mind. Seeing him learn makes me feel this experiment might work, that Dad will eventually use his PC to explore the Net, dictate his life story, and trade stocks online. It'll help him stay in closer touch with the world, and with his sons. But my grandmother's a smart lady; sometimes I get a twinge and wonder if maybe she's right. So, Dad? Is she right? E-mail me.
7 SHOPPING TIPS
If your parents are anything like my dad, you'll find that helping them shop for a computer and get online isn't like shopping for yourself. You may be willing to experiment, but making a wrong choice for them may put them off computing for good. I spent three weeks looking around, and consulted four of the smartest techies I know--FORTUNE product writers Joel Dreyfuss and Mike Himowitz, columnist Stewart Alsop, and tech-staff director Jeff Fulton. Here are tips I picked up.
If they move around, buy a laptop. Today's laptops are as good as desktops, and if your folks move about, they can manage with one machine. For those who go this route, Alsop adds a helpful suggestion--buy a dock replicator for each house so that after you set things up, your parent can just slide in the laptop without worrying about plugging in the printer, the floppy drive, and so on. In desktops, meanwhile, PC makers like Compaq and Dell offer consumer-oriented Internet-ready models. And don't forget Apple's new iMac--it's arguably the easiest to learn. (For more on laptops, see The Dreyfuss Report.)
For info, check out computers.com. There are a lot of schlocky Websites out there. This site, run by CNET, is terrific. The product reviews are informative and well written, and it's easy to compare products--everything from computer hardware and software to digital cameras.
Visit www.dell.com. No other PC company has a site that's so user-friendly. It's easy to customize a PC to your liking, adding and deleting features and seeing what that does to the price. I chose a Dell laptop for my Dad, but if I were shopping now, I'd look at IBM's i Series, cheaper versions of the ThinkPad that have just appeared.
Shop the online retailers. I find CompUSA stores an intimidating mess. Online retailers sell cheap, and the best sites make it easy to compare products and prices. My favorite was microwarehouse.com. It offered great prices on the HP printers Dad wound up buying.
Sign him or her up with AOL. Techies hate it, but AOL is the easiest service to use, with a national reach and customer service that's at least adequate.
Think of getting a tutor. Dad's friends swear by them. Check with your parents' tech-savvy pals, or call your community college or local adult-learning center.
Consider speech-recognition software. The stuff works well now and is a great relief to anyone who hates typing. Most people I spoke to recommended NaturallySpeaking, from Dragon Systems ( www.dragonsys.com).
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